Knicks’ Donte DiVincenzo is filling the stat sheet and now attracting attention

ORLANDO, Fla. — Donte DiVincenzo isn’t used to this much attention.

The New York Knicks guard has always drained 3-pointers. He’s always been active, a pest with the bravado to keep chucking them up, even in moments when his jumper was a smidge funky. But the way defenses hounded DiVincenzo over the final few weeks leading into the All-Star break — that was new.

At least now, he can rest.

DiVincenzo was one of six Knicks rotation players who were out during Wednesday’s 118-100 loss to the Orlando Magic, which closed the first half of New York’s season. Injuries have ravaged this group. Mitchell Robinson (ankle), Julius Randle (shoulder) and OG Anunoby (elbow) are sidelined for weeks — or, in Robinson’s case, months. Isaiah Hartenstein (Achilles) and Bojan Bogdanović (calf) have joined them at the doctor’s office.

Finally, the bug bit DiVincenzo, who sat out the Magic game because of a hamstring injury he suffered Monday in Houston.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau said he expects DiVincenzo, Hartenstein and Bogdanović back when the Knicks play next, which isn’t until Feb. 22. But even once all three return, basketball won’t be so easygoing.

Randle, Anunoby and Robinson still have more time in street clothes ahead. DiVincenzo has emerged in their absence. And the league has noticed.

Opponents pick up DiVincenzo at half court. For two hours every other night, palms angle themselves just in front of his nose. Guarding one of the league’s most particular marksmen is no longer about forcing difficult shots; it’s about keeping the ball away from him altogether.

Not everyone has succeeded.

DiVincenzo is averaging 26.5 points and 4.0 assists since Anunoby and Randle exited the lineup on Jan. 29. He’s at 40 percent from 3-point distance in those eight games — and it’s not like he’s been picky.

DiVincenzo won’t stop shooting; he’s splashing in 5.3 long-range makes on more than 13 attempts a game. Both figures place him second in the NBA to the ageless Stephen Curry during this time. And he won’t stop playing. His 40.4 minutes a night are second in the league to teammate Precious Achiuwa over this period.

“I think it’s his best stretch of basketball,” Thibodeau said.

And now, defenses won’t leave him alone, which has meant a return to the drawing board.

“There were a couple of games I was getting frustrated where they were denying me almost at half court,” DiVincenzo said. “Especially when Julius is out, we’re a man down, Jalen (Brunson) is doing a lot of pick-and-roll and when I’m off the ball, they’re face guarding and denying.”

This is not the same DiVincenzo as the one who excelled as a role player in Milwaukee, Sacramento and Golden State. Heck, it’s not even the same one who knocked down better than two of every five 3s over the first couple months of this season.

Only a few weeks ago, amidst a career-best season from 3-point land, DiVincenzo shot down suggestions that he had taken some sort of leap. He wasn’t necessarily an improved shooter but he was smarter, he said. DiVincenzo understands how accurate he is from the corners and off the catch. He insisted that after six years in the league he had “nothing to prove.” So after studying what he was best at, he leaned into all his strengths.

A higher percentage of his 3-pointers than ever were from the corners. Nearly all his long balls were assisted. And the overall success rate climbed because of it.

But the two and a half weeks have blown up DiVincenzo’s modesty even more than DiVincenzo has blown up box scores.

“He’s been big for us. Just stepping up when we need him the most,” Hartenstein said. “Every game this season when we kind of need it, when we need somebody to step up, he was there.”

This is not the same, spot-up savant that once lined the periphery of the Knicks’ offense — and of opponents’ scouting reports.

Coaching staffs going up against the Knicks now game plan for him with extra oomph. Teams preparing for New York have spent long portions of game-day shootaround scheming how to bother a seemingly unperturbed scorer.

Over this eight-game heater, DiVincenzo has shot 43 percent on pull-up 3s, according to Second Spectrum. He’s running more pick-and-rolls and getting to the basket more. Without Randle, the father of more 3-pointers than anyone else on the team, DiVincenzo has to create them himself — or generate ones for teammates.

Thibodeau will be the first to tell you, the best 3-point looks usually come after the ball infiltrates the paint. A driver could raid the rim and kick it to the perimeter as defenders collapse in on him. Or a behemoth such as Randle could butt shove some helpless schlub, encouraging a second defender to double-team him, which unbalances the floor. Randle can toss the ball to an unguarded man who shoots or finds another teammate for an open 3.

When Randle is healthy, such is their best way to create 3-pointers. But today, he’s not, which has meant other Knicks making up for his paint presence.

“When you look at how 3s are generated, it’s transition first, then it’s the dribble penetration, forcing the defense to collapse,” Thibodeau said. “We always say, ‘Get paint grabs.’ Get the ball into the paint and then drive, pass, pass. Those are rhythm 3s.”

Brunson is driving to the basket 24.5 times a game during the nine games without Randle and Anunoby, per Second Spectrum, the second most in the NBA during that time and up from 17.6 before it. Yet, the sharpest difference on the team belongs to DiVincenzo, who is driving four times more often since Randle got hurt.

The ball hits the ground when DiVincenzo runs a pick-and-roll — or because of those frantic defenders who fly at one of the world’s most uninhibited shooters, hoping to deter a jumper.

“(I will) still be aggressive with catch-and-shoots but also, how are they closing on me? They’re focused and aggressive,” DiVincenzo said. “The first guy flies; they’re sending a second one sometimes. So a lot of it is just reading the closeouts.”

And when they soar past him, that’s when he goes.

But DiVincenzo’s evolution goes even deeper than just handling the basketball more. He’s not even occupying the same places on the court.

For example, during his first five NBA seasons, when he wasn’t with the Knicks, DiVincenzo habitually spaced a yard or two beyond the 3-point arc. He adjusted that upon his arrival in New York, where he hangs out closer to the arc, ready to toss up a jumper as soon as the ball touches his fingertips.

But over these past few weeks, he’s re-implemented his old ways. Check out how deep he spaces on this play, how high he runs the ensuing pick-and-roll with Josh Hart, how composed he remains when two defenders switch as he goes into a second pick-and-roll with Taj Gibson, how the two defenders manning the Knicks players in either corner don’t take their eyes off DiVincenzo or how rushed all three defenders are trying to disrupt a scorer who isn’t even close to the 3-point arc:

It’s a conscious decision from a basketball thinker. Hanging around further out means pulling his defender another meter or two away from the paint, which opens the lane more for Brunson or anyone else who may want to slash through it.

“If Jalen is coming off a pick-and-roll and I know they’re denying me, I’m just gonna back up, create more space for Jalen to work, more space for Josh to come off the dribble handoff, because then if they sink, I almost just follow him to the 3-point line,” DiVincenzo said. “Like I said, that’s what I haven’t seen in my career so far.”

When DiVincenzo runs pick-and-rolls, which he’s done far more often with Randle and Anunoby out, he’s reminded his teammates they can venture up near the logo to set screens for him, which just creates more space for defenders to cover — and gives him a greater chance to storm downhill.

Defenders can’t sag back. If they do, they risk an unabashed shooter rising for an easy 3.

“I think it’s needed — not to say that when guys come back, we need it at the same clip,” DiVincenzo said. “But at the same time, it just adds another asset to our offense.”

Right now, the Knicks are impossible to analyze.

They have lost four consecutive games and five of six. They are 4-5 since the Randle and Anunoby injuries and have dropped to fifth place in the Eastern Conference. A new player, whether it’s Brunson, Bogdanović or now DiVincenzo, joins the party in the training room daily.

Defenses are swarming Brunson. Even The Beatles didn’t fight through crowds like the ones the first-time All-Star does. Achiuwa has run for 39-plus minutes in eight consecutive games.

Not all minutes are created equal, either.

There are low-leverage ones, the type that includes an uninvolved player jogging from end to end without guarding anyone important or ever crossing inside the 3-point arc. And then there are the ones that someone such as DiVincenzo has to play, when his defensive obligations ratchet up without Anunoby around to man the other team’s top dog and where flinging 13 3s or slicing to the rim is the norm.

He felt the sting against Houston.

Midway into the fourth quarter, he pulled up short on a defensive possession and grabbed the back of his right leg. He limped around the court for a few possessions before heading to the bench during a timeout, when he used a Theragun to massage an injured right hamstring as he stood over Thibodeau, focusing on the coach’s upcoming play call. DiVincenzo re-entered the game but asked out less than a minute later and headed straight to the locker room. At that point, he had played 41 of a possible 43 minutes.

On Wednesday, without most of their top scorers and with the throwing every type of defender at Brunson, the Knicks went dry.

Scoring will be smoother when DiVincenzo, Bogdanović and Hartenstein are back. Anunoby may not be long behind them. Doctors are set to re-evaluate him around March 1. And according to a league source with knowledge of his recovery, the team expects him to return to on-court activities not long after. Meanwhile, the Knicks remain optimistic that Randle can come back with time remaining in the regular season.

Once the regulars are healthy, the Knicks won’t need this shot-happy version of DiVincenzo. But the rest of the league will have seen him sustain this caliber of performance for long enough to fear it.

The Knicks’ starters have played 14 games together and have eviscerated opponents when they’ve shared the court. This stretch, even if a 4-5 record isn’t ideal, could help them down the road.

DiVincenzo can continue to set up deeper. The team can feel more confident if he needs to create a shot late in the clock. All the while, defenders will be less inclined to leave him open when Randle posts up or when Brunson tries one of his rinky-dink moves down low. And if they stray, there is a good chance they will regret it.

(Photo of Donte DiVincenzo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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